MONTHS AGO, BEFORE SNOW FELL and the season officially transitioned to winter, I followed a paved trail into the woods at River Bend Nature Center and then a grassy path to a wetlands overlook.
River Bend, on Faribault’s east side, rates as a favorite outdoor destination. That November day I embraced the lingering remnants of autumn, now overtaken by the cold and snow of winter.
Even in the muted hues of autumn’s end, beauty exists.
But, for me, taking in the evolving landscape stretches beyond simply seeing that which unfolds before me. It’s also about looking back. To my childhood on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.
When I hike the wooded trails of River Bend, I see my younger self riding my bike through the grove back on the farm. Except the bike was a horse, not a bike. I grew up in the era of TV Westerns—of “Rawhide” and “Bonanza.”
Fallen branches at River Bend angled into a shelter resemble those built by me and my siblings. We also constructed buildings by looping baler twine around tree trunks. And we crafted a house, too, from discarded wire fencing. Oh, the imaginations of farm kids let loose in the grove.
Dried leaves scattered in the woods bring more memories. Each autumn, I gathered fallen leaves into piles, then dropped the leaves into lines. Walls. Constructing leaf houses filled many a recess at Vesta Elementary School. And many an autumn day for my siblings and me.
I recall, too, hiding in tall grass between the granary and the south grove. When I scan the prairie expanse of River Bend, I imagine myself vanishing. Hiding from brothers with cap guns holstered at their sides. Yes, I owned a cap gun, too, and wore a straw cowgirl hat, although we called them cowboy hats back then.
My father owned a gun, which he used once a year to hunt for pheasants in the slough hole (as we redundantly termed the slough on our farm). When I look across the wetlands at River Bend, I think of the one time my oldest brother and I accompanied Dad to the low lying pothole to hunt for pheasants. I don’t recall whether that hunt was successful. Eventually, Dad drained the slough to add more tillable acreage. I often wonder about the sensibilities of draining prairie potholes and how that affected the land. The undrained wetlands of River Bend are mostly dry in this drought year.
While walking the prairie, I spotted dried seedheads. Coneflower seeds lying atop the grass, where they will eventually reseed. Nature recycling.
Milkweed pods, too, flourish in River Bend’s prairieland. Back on the farm, I pulled milkweeds from soybean fields. “Walking beans” is the correct term. Walking between soybean rows pulling unwanted weeds—especially cockleburs and thistles. Only detasseling corn ranks as worse. I’ll walk beans or shovel manure any day (and I did plenty of that) over corn detasseling on a hot and humid July day.
Those dried milkweeds at River Bend bring one final memory. And it is a Christmas memory. One year I crafted a Christmas ornament for my Aunt Rachel from a milkweed pod and a discarded holiday card. (My mom saved everything.) I cut out an elfin girl dressed in a glittery red suit, her face framed by a pointy hood. Then I taped the cut-out to a toothpick and stuck the impish child into the downy snow of an open milkweed pod. Beautiful.
These are the childhood memories sparked by my November walk through River Bend Nature Center. I feel grateful for this sprawling natural space, for the peace it brings me as I follow trails into the present. And into the past.
© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling